Black farmers’ claims clash with pay-go rules

A $1.15 billion settlement with black farmers is clashing with Congress’s worries about adding to the federal deficit.

House Democrats have been discussing whether or not to waive pay-go rules to pay out discrimination claims black farmers have won against the Agriculture Department (USDA). One option under consideration is attaching the appropriation for the agreement to the upcoming war supplementary spending bill, which doesn’t adhere to the budget rules because it has been granted emergency status.

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But it seems lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the Obama administration are leaning against that idea. Instead, they are considering finding a different legislative vehicle to carry the settlement across the finish line, which would require a spending cut somewhere else in the federal budget.

“We would prefer to do it in regular order … to make sure it adheres to pay-go rules. The American people are demanding that we balance the federal budget and not unnecessarily add to the federal deficit,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) about the settlement.

Butterfield was speaking at a press conference Wednesday with several black-farmer groups that are pressing for the settlement funds. Reps. David Scott (D-Ga.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) also spoke at the event and called for Congress to find the money to fund the settlement.

On March 18, the coalition sent a letter it sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), calling for them to find funds for the $1.15 billion. A March 31 deadline for the agreement has come and gone, but lawmakers are still trying to authorize financing for the settlement.

Butterfield, along with other lawmakers, is involved in intense discussions with the administration and black-farmer groups in trying to find a bill to attach the agreement to. Several groups and lawmakers met with White House officials last week to discuss the settlement.

Butterfield said the White House is not for waiving pay-go rules either.

“The president told us that he would prefer that we try to find a vehicle so that this appropriation and this settlement can be paid for. We do not want to add unnecessarily to the deficit or the federal debt,” Butterfield said.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that he was working with lawmakers to find funding for the black farmers’ agreement.

“There is a responsibility to identify offsets or designate that settlement as an emergency which would supersede the pay-go responsibilities,” Vilsack told lawmakers at a House Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday. “We are working with leadership and those interested in this issue to identify precisely the course of action that will allow Congress to move forward.”

Nevertheless, if legislation could not be found, Butterfield said he and other lawmakers would support attaching the black farmers’ settlement to the war spending bill, which will come up this spring.

Despite the delay in paying out the settlement, Butterfield said that Democrats in both the House and Senate want to find the funds. Black-farmer lobbyists have questioned the administration’s resolve, but the lawmaker said Obama is fully committed to the cause.

“There is an unequivocal commitment from the president of the United States to ensure compliance and payment of this settlement amount,” the North Carolina Democrat said.

As an Illinois senator, Obama was key in securing funds for black farmers. He helped place a relief fund for the discrimination claims in the 2008 Farm Bill that was needed to win Congressional Black Caucus support for the bill.

The issue at hand today, however, is how to thread the needle of finding funding for the discrimination settlement while not adding to the national debt. Butterfield said that is the goal.

“If we can accomplish both of those without sacrificing either, that would be desirable,” he said.